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Creating an Inclusive Culture: 4 Things Executives Can Do Right Now

Inclusion. It’s a big buzzword in all industries right now, as brands try to make themselves appealing not only to prospective employees but to their current employees, as well.

In recent years, a growing consensus has emerged that there is simply a dearth of people from underrepresented communities in tech roles, especially leadership roles. In 2017, for example, Deloitte reported that nearly three-quarters of American employees would consider leaving an organization for one that they felt was more inclusive.

“In a race for talent, an inclusive culture can really draw people in and make them stay if it’s done right,” says Deborah DeHaas, Deloitte’s vice chairman and chief inclusion officer. “And today, it is a make-or-break for some individuals.”

A similar sentiment is reflected in the 2019 Workplace Survey from Staples, in which 63 percent of respondents said they would not accept a new job without knowing whether an organization is actively inclusive of women, minorities and people with disabilities.

Workers are continuing to look for businesses and brands that reflect the world’s evolving attitudes toward inclusion. Company executives need to understand how an inclusive culture can benefit the organization from top to bottom. Below, we explore how an executives can go about creating an inclusive environment right now.

Why Inclusion Matters in the Workplace

Firstly, inclusion isn’t just about diversity.

While the two are most commonly used interchangeably, inclusion is actually the act of welcoming diversity and creating an environment where diversity thrives and succeeds. Inclusive workplaces allow employees to feel more comfortable about being themselves, making mistakes without consequences, helping the business innovate and making suggestions to incorporate more innovations.

An example of this comes from Bernard Coleman III, now global head of diversity and inclusion at Uber. Before that, Coleman was the first ever chief diversity and human resources officer for the Hillary for America presidential campaign. “The most diverse campaign ever assembled just didn’t happen by accident,” he writes. “It occurred due to deliberate intention, committed leadership, and the creation of the Chief Diversity and Human Resources officer role, cementing the standard to have an individual responsible for leaving diversity efforts.”

Coleman’s point is important for all executives to understand: An inclusive culture starts with a company’s leaders and the decisions they make.

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Creating an Inclusive Culture

In 2018, Dr. Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino at Deloitte explored how companies can drive inclusion by looking at how employees feel about their current work environments. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed across different industries, management and senior levels, ages, genders, ethnicities, and orientations stated that they went to great effort to keep from being stigmatized for being themselves or representing a cause.

The researchers call this behavior “covering,” and it’s a familiar workplace practice for people from underrepresented communities. People from African-American and Latino cultures might code-switch when they speak. People from LGBTQ+ communities might try to downplay their orientations or gender identities. Women might try to downplay their motherhood.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously practiced covering. While most of the American public was aware that the president used a wheelchair, most of his public appearances and photos were staged to downplay his disability.

When people cover at work, it implies they don’t feel free to be themselves or express their insights with colleagues (or with company leaders).

Again, it’s up to company leadership to change such an environment. Below are four steps all company executives can take right now to initiate that change.

1. Reflect on the Current Leadership Structure

A company’s leadership is what employees look to when they consider the working environment. It’s useful to explore the composition of your company’s leadership team through the lens of inclusion. Ask yourself:

  • How diverse is the leadership and management?
  • How open are they to interacting not only with employees but each other. For example, does the CIO feel comfortable bringing their partner to company functions or outings?
  • Can the CFO freely discuss a proud moment in their child’s lives?
  • Are members of leadership involved in advocacy groups within the company?
  • Does the company support these groups not just as an initiative, but via active participation?

Executive leadership is important to any company’s employees. In fact, the Staples survey found that 68 percent of employees would leave their current jobs if they didn’t feel supported by their leadership.

2. Give Employees a Voice

Inclusion is more than simply ensuring you have employees who represent a wide variety of voices and experiences. Inclusion means letting those same employees use those voices and empowering them to engage with leadership and colleagues on behalf of the company.

In another Deloitte report, DeHaas, Brent Bachus and Eliza Horn found that employees who feel they have a voice experience a stronger sense of being a part of the organization. Those employees tend to be more productive and tend to stay with the company longer. In other words, those employees feel engaged. That’s a key finding, too, as Patriot Software CEO Mike Kappel notes, more than two-thirds of American employees don’t feel engaged with their work.

An engaged team is a serious competitive advantage in the marketplace and when it comes to hiring. Engaged employees understand their organizations’ missions and what value they as individuals contribute to that mission. What’s more, they are more likely to speak up, without fear of reprisal, when they experience challenges or issues at work.

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3. Ensure Inclusion Isn’t Just an Add-On

For an inclusive culture to work and for employees to feel as though they belong, executives can’t treat inclusion as a nice-to-have. Inclusion needs to be baked into all parts of the business.

That means no company should dissuade or prohibit its employees from participating in groups that advocate for LGBTQ+ people, veterans or independent-mobility initiatives, for example. Even better: Executives should be active participants and leaders within these groups, showing that the entire company supports the message and the individuals who are involved.

Wanda Bryant Hope, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Johnson & Johnson, says promoting the messages of others helps everyone feel that they belong. “Our vision for Diversity & Inclusion at Johnson & Johnson is: Be Yourself, Change the World,” she says. “We strive for that every day by embedding D&I into the way we do business – enabling everyone to feel they belong and perform at their best. This is how we foster the innovations that are the foundation of our success.”

4. Build a Sense of Community

At the beginning of this post, we noted that nearly three-quarters of employees would leave their current company for one that was more inclusive. Hope’s point speaks to why that is: Everyone wants to feel like they belong where they are.

When they don’t, humans have a long history of looking elsewhere for that sense of belonging.

That’s why it’s useful for company executives to think in terms of community. “Community” doesn’t mean parties every week or that everyone hangs out together on the weekends. “Community” means employees feel a connection with their colleagues and thus a connection to the company as a whole.

For an instructive model of such communities, just think about the fan groups that organize around Game of Thrones or Star Wars. These fandoms are loyal, and each member feels a sense of community with other fans — even for films that are 50 years old at this point.

This concept of community works in the business environment, where individuals are able to rely on and support each other, whether the person involved is the new technician in the IT department or the new CEO. “Community” in this case means employees feel comfortable turning to each other in times of stress or good times.

What Data Can Tell Us About Inclusion

Quality data analysis can help executives learn and understand how current employees feel about their environment, as well as what thoughts they have on creating workplaces that are more inclusive. New innovations are helping companies find and hire talent that will meet their hiring requirements by looking past the words on a resume.

Artificial intelligence, for instance, is capable of pinpointing unconscious bias on the part of interviewers or management, helping companies recognize when these challenges are getting in the way of hiring talented people from across all walks of life. Such tools can also help in measuring and maintaining an inclusive culture within the company and office.

Images by: Mimi Thian, Claudio Hirschberger, rawpixel